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Through the Middle Atlas Mountains

December 12, 2021

Though Riad d’Or was growing on me, mostly due to the kind offices of Nordine, I wasn’t sad to leave the gritty city of Meknes. Our ultimate destination today was a date farm outside Errachidia, the last major city before you reach the Sahara. It’s a five- or six-hour drive if you do it straight through, but we didn’t. We stopped for a coffee in the very beautiful and un-Moroccan town of Ifrane. Developed in the 1930s by the French, it looks like it should be in Switzerland, not the Middle Atlas Mountains. The homes have steeply pitched roofs and are very Western architecturally. Parks with many hardwood trees, lakes and walking paths give the town its European air. There were patches of snow on the hillsides as we drove out of town. We also passed through a very large cedar forest shrouded in thick fog; as soon as we cleared the forest, the sun came through.

Further on, we saw cars stopped at the side of the road, so we did too, to watch the antics of a few dozen Macacque monkeys swinging from tree branches, wrestling, grooming each other and engaging in all manner of monkey business. According to Abdou, these monkeys actually came from Spain; they’re the same species as those in Gibralter, I believe.

Pressing on, we passed through an area with more snow and a few ski slopes, then the landscape became increasingly desolate, though the light snow cover added a certain beauty. Soon we were past the snowy stretch, the two-lane highway a silver ribbon snaking through the rugged brown landscape with barely any vegetation. For long stretches we saw no houses or towns, but occasionally there were nomads driving small trucks with pens on the roof holding wriggling sheep. Abdou told me they were migrating to find better feeding grounds for their animals. I could envision these top-heavy trucks taking a hairpin turn too fast and sending the sheep flying.

We stopped for lunch in Zaïda, a busy town that is the crossroads of the Middle Atlas. Cafés lined the main street, festooned with sides of beef and lamb hanging in front to whet the appetite, and men barbecuing said meat on smoky grills lining the sidewalk. At the restaurant we chose, there were also six or eight tajines simmering away on another grill. We shared a big platter of grilled meat and kefte with lots of bread.

I didn’t think it was possible, but once we left Zaïda our surroundings were even more like a moonscape, with odd rock formations and striations on the mountainsides that evoked brown corduroy cloth covering the land in its folds. No trees, barely any scrub grass, just rocks and dirt. 

In the late afternoon we passed through Errachidia and continued out of town, Zachariah finding the barely marked turnoff. Waiting for us was the tall and stately Berber Abdul (I think — he told me I should call him Kiki). We followed him for a couple of miles to the date farm, where he and I set off on about an hour’s fascinating walk through the gigantic grove, tucked in a gorge. In addition to date palms, there are olive trees, and also small fields tucked between clumps of palms where they cultivate other crops they need for subsistence, like alfalfa, onions and corn.

These yellow things are the spent fronds that held dates. Workers climb the trunks (those woody remnants are very sharp) to cut down the yellow or orange stems holding the ripe dates. For the first time in my life I ate a date right off the tree, and it was so soft and sweet. I learned there are forty varieties of dates just in this forest!  The farm was not planted per se, but is thought to have sprung up after caravans passed through the area, discarding date pits. Families in the village form a kind of cooperative, planting and harvesting crops and picking dates together. Kiki has lived here all his life, and while the waning light remained we walked through the tiny village of mud and straw houses where he was born and raised, now deserted.

Tonight we’re staying in a small auberge on the edge of the village. They fed us mounds of food, including one of these giant tajines for each of us. People who criticize Americans for portion sizes have never been to Morocco!

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